Culture

The Anti-Hero Rides Back into Washington

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Three of the most popular “holiday” films share common cause.

In American Hustle, a corrupt FBI agent recruits a corrupt businessman to go after corrupt politicians in a mind-numbing series of acts of betrayal, greed, and lust.

In the Wolf of Wall Street, a corrupt stockbroker enlists his equally corrupt buddies to swindle honest people in order to fuel his company’s depraved, drug-fueled lifestyle.

In Inside Llewyn Davis, a selfish, dead-beat, second-string folk singer meanders around Greenwich Village accomplishing not much of anything other than letting down anyone who cares anything about him.

Each film trumpets the return of the anti-hero.

Nothing signals a shift in popular culture more than the return of one the most time-worn tropes of Western cinema.

The anti-hero is not to be confused with the lead character we love to hate, like the sleazy Gordon Gekko played by hair-slicked-back Michael Douglas in Wall Street (1987). Nor is an anti-hero the noble character with deep flaws such as Llewelyn Moss, the day-old beard, enigmatic welder (Josh Brolin) who runs off with the cartel’s cash in No Country for Old Men. Anti-heroes are not flawed, they are both intentionally amoral and the camera wants us to root for them anyway.

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The rapist hero of A Clockwork Orange prepares one of his victims.

Since the first days of cinema, anti-heroes have popped-up in films from time to time, but Hollywood heaps them upon us the most when Americans are in a particularly self-loathing mood. The most nauseating wave of cinema self-hate came in the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate. Films like Midnight Cowboy (1969), MASH (1970), and A Clockwork Orange (1971) all gave us lead characters that were morally ambivalent or downright evil and despicable. Hollywood wanted us to love them just because they were anti-establishment nonconformist. Hero-worship, admiring noble virtues and deeds, was for suckers. Instead, hating righteous behavior became a righteous symbol of freedom—something cool.

Now, it looks like the age of self-hating cinema may be back, with an unprecedented spate of high-profile anti-hero films from Hollywood.  That these films are interspersed with holiday family fair like Disney’s Frozen, comic anti-heroes such as Despicable Me 2, and dramatic stories about real heroes including Lone Survivor (based on the true story of a the actions of a Medal of Honor recipient in Afghanistan), might make for a bit of a head scratcher in gauging Tinseltown as compass for popular culture.

Nevertheless, the latest trend is disturbing. While America might not be completely lapsing into the soulless 70s, it is not surprising that Hollywood may be going dour to look for box office dollars. The economy remains mired in one of the slowest recoveries in US history. Obama’s foreign policy has been a disaster on every front. Partisanship in Washington has never been worse.  No wonder Hollywood suspects that Americans may be in the mood to turn their backs on the American dream.